jeudi 1 octobre 2009

The question of evil

I'm preparing a talk for a youth week-end away in Pierrefonds concerning the question of evil. Toughie.

I was asked the same question a while back by a member of my youth group, and this is the e-mail that I sent her. I re-read it preparing for this talk... Here it is. (Yes, I do like writing long, theological articles.


Comme promis, here's what my answer is concerning the question of evil.

Now at the university where I studied, they would teach us that the Bible doesn't give us a theoretical explanation to the question of evil. God is sovereign, so everything happens according to his plan for humankind, and yet God is good and there is no evil in him. And yet evil does exist. How these three things come together in one is the only real incomprehensible mystery inside the Bible. They call it "le mystère opaque", whereas things such as the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ (the fact that he is fully man and fully God) are called "mystères de lumière": they aren't fully graspable, but you can put into words how it works, without totally managing to get your head around it. You can understand what the mystery is not, even if you can't understand what the mystery is. With evil, they say, you can't even say what the mystery is not. There is no humanly conceptualisable answer. And the Bible, although it doesn't give a theoretical answer to the question of evil, gives a practical one in the person of Jesus Christ, and his death on the cross, defeating sin, illness and evil. You can find a thorough explanation of this position in a book called "le mal et la croix" (or "evil and the cross": it was written in both languages), by Henri Blocher.

Now this doesn't satisfy me. Maybe it's my sinful nature that's desperately trying to find an answer, and not managing to let go of a question that bugs me, and simply lay it in God's hands, admitting the impossibility of knowledge. But I think that somehow, the Bible does give an answer to the question of evil, and it is most eloquently exposed in the line of thinking and theologizing of John Calvin. John Calvin, and his disciples recognize in the Bible a pattern which points to God's glory as being of primary importance. God IS glorious. If there is one word to describe God, it is his glory (in the sense of his ultimate greatness, unfathomableness, radient beauty and compellingness that shine through all that he is and all that he does), and that glory comprizes all of the other important attributes of God such as his holiness and his love and his infinity and his unknowableness. And therefore, as God in his glory is the ultimate truth, the ultimate good, the ultimate reason for existence (Calvin's followers coigned up this incredible phrase in the Westminster shorter catechism: "the chief end of man [meaning the main purpose of man] is to glorify God and enjoy him forever") it is God in his glory that must be pursued in order for the ultimate good to be pursued. We were created to reflect back to God his own glory. Because that is the ultimate good. That is the most noble thing possible. It is the only thing that is pleasing to Holy God: that he be glorified. Does he need us to glorify him in order for him to be glorious? Certainly not! Is his glory incomplete if we fail in our task? By no means! God remains glorious whether we admit it or not. But God takes the most pleasure in us when we take pleasure in him, and therefore give him the most glory. It is by admitting that God is the most glorious, worthy of praise, and desireable thing in this universe that God is the most glorified.

And it is good, not evil, that God be so radically God-centered, because for God to not be God-centered would magnify a lie: it would be accepting the lie that there is something more worthy of focus and interest and praise than almighty God, which of course is a heresy! For God to not be heretic he needs to love God above all things, and want him to be praised and seen as glorious. In fact, not only is it good, it is the most good thing in the universe, and anything that must be judged as to whether it is good or not must be measured up to how glorifying to God it is, in intent as well as in deed (therefore 10 000 € given to a poor man, with all good intentions in the world, except for the intention of glorifying God is not as worthy a deed as 10 € given to a poor man with completely pure motives, including the desire to glorify God). So God, to be good, has to desire his glory in all things.

So that is the basic theology of calvinist thinking: radically God-centered theology. God is not first and foremost for Man, he is first and foremost for God. Even his death was not first and foremost for Man, it was first and foremost for the Glory of God. Christ died to redeem for God people of every tribe and tongue and nation, that God might have for himself a redeemed people. And not only is Christ's work at the cross for God's glory first of all: the whole plan behind the salvation of mankind is for God's glory: it all happened in such a way that God may get all the glory. Indeed, we are saved by grace, through faith, not by works, so that we may not boast of deserving God's heaven. It is God who gives it all to undeserving men. And I believe, as a proponent of predestination, that our faith does not come from our own free choice of God: we were dead to God in our sinfulness, and God, through the work of his Holy Spirit, out of sovereign grace, irrespective of the man's primary condition, brought believers out of the darkness, and into the glorious light of saving faith in Christ. It is not ourselves, by any superior spirituality, who save ourselves, and accept Christ by faith. It is God who gives us faith, so that none may boast, and so that all the glory go back to God. And because predestination to faith in Christ is the only system which fits totally with biblical data concerning salvation, and which totally magnifes God's glory, that is why I believe in it, and that is why Calvin was such a staunch defender of predestination.

Now to your question: why does evil happen? Now, imagine a world that had remained perfect, bearing in mind that the ultimate good, and the ultimate reason why man was made is so that God may be glorified, and he is most glorified when men reflect his glory back to him, through our praise and by displaying his works. In a world that had remained perfect, God would have been able to reveal to us his love, his goodness, his perfect logic and wisdom, his infinity, and other such attributes. But there are many other ones of his attriutes that we would never have known. We would not have known his wrath which is an essential part of understanding God's love. And most of all, we would not have understood grace. If there was no reason to save us, God would not have had to become flesh, he would not have had to die. The mass of redeemed sinners who will one day worship in heaven will make God's praise so much greater than anything that a blissfully edenic Adam and Eve could have mustered, because we were lost in the pits of our own sinfulness, and we have been saved, washed clean by the only great God. God is revealed in all his fullness in a world which contains evil. And so he not only let evil happen, he ordained that evil be. He ordained that Adam and Eve might fall, and that he would put on a rescue plan.

Now this may seem like a great impiety to many. And I myself struggle with it. But I do believe that it would be more evil of God to not display his full Glory to men, because the ultimate good is when God is glorified, and the most loving thing for God to do, if his Glory is indeed the most enjoyable thing on this earth, is to display it for us to gaze upon it in all of its wonder. If God's glory is conceeled in any way by God, he is not allowing himself to be glorified, and he therefore isn't good, and if God is to conceal from us any elements of his glory to us, then he is not being loving, because he is not giving us that which is the most delightful thing in the world. So I don't believe that it is an impiety, but it is a very fine balance.

So that is why evil happens, if you want my full, blunt and honest answer. I may be a heretic, and I know that I am treading on very Holy ground here. But I think that it is the truth. May God give me his grace for any false teaching that I may utter concerning him, and may he have mercy on me for not understanding him enough. I pray that on this particular issue, he has given me the grace to see clearly.

Now there are a few questions that you may have, that this type of theology will necessarily raise. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask them to me, and I'll do my best to answer them:

- "How can a Holy God ordain that evil be? Doesn't the Bible say that there is no evil in God?". Yes, the Bible does say that. And anybody who claims the opposite is committing a horrendous impiety! God, bad? Never! However, I do not believe that God ordaining, through an unimpeachable decree, that evil be is the same thing as God comitting evil. The Bible says that God hardened Pharoh's heart. God did it! But it is Pharoh who is responsible. Simply because of this: when put in front of a choice, man can ALWAYS do what he wants to do. Our freedom in our choices, from God's point of view, is never totally free. But from our point of view, it is our decision. I can choose to say no to something. So even if God decrees that I will say yes, when I am in front of the situation, I don't know God's decree, and I can choose yes or no. And therefore I am responsible for it. The ultimate reason is God. But in the thick and fast of life, I know that the responsibility is mine. And so it is the same with Satan's fall, and Adam and Eve's. But that is also the case for good deeds. When in front of a choice, I can choose, from my point of view, to do good or evil. There is nothing stopping me from either option. So even if God has ordained for us good works that he's prepared in advance for us to do, when it comes to the thick and fast, I am responsible for my good choice. And it is the same for a decision of faith. I do not believe that predestination means that God zaps our brain and short circuits us as robots to obey his command. My responsibility and choice are real. Anti predestinationists have coined up the phrase: "whoever wants to come to God can come to God". A predestinationist will answer: "yes, but how does the person want to come in the first place, when he is in all ways fallen and unable to desire God?". So God's active and efficient decrees mean that whatever God wants comes to pass. However, it happens through the medium of man's responsible, albeit not absolutely free choice. So God doesn't do evil, even though he decrees that evil be. And that does not make God a sinner.

- "If God does whatever he wants, to his praise and glory, how do you explain passages that say that God hates evil, and does not want it to happen?" Again, these passages are true. And this objection is a real tricky one. I would answer, along with a theological hypothesis devised by Jonathan Edwards, which makes perfect sense of the biblical data: God has a kind of "two level view" on reality. There is the ultimate, panoramic view, in which everything that God wants to happen will happen, to his praise and glory, and this delights God! He loves his plan for history, because it is the only plan through which he will get all the Glory and be fully displayed and enjoyed by the Men who follow him. However he also has a close-up view, which saddens God. He hates wars, famine etc. He hates it when families break up, when sin happens, when his only Son is nailed to a cross. On that day, at Golgotha, God the Father must have had such mixed feelings: pain, sorrow, distress at the loss of his Son, and yet overflowing joy, delight, rapture and uproaring of sheer gladness that his plan for history was so great, and perfect and glorifying to Him. That is why the Bible says that it was the Father's good-pleasure to bruise the Son (I don't have time to look up all of these references... If you really want me to give them to you, get back to me, and I'll take more time to research this. Otherwise, you can use a concordance to look up these passages, or use And the internal dilemna inside the Son was the same: he was in utter anguish and pain and sorrow to be separated from his Father, cruelly nailed to a cross by these people that he loved so much. And yet Hebrews 12.2 tells us that it is with confidence and joy that Christ went to the cross. It is the same for the whole of history.


I hope that you are not shocked by my answer. I even hope that it is compelling to you, and that you would embrace the God-centred God of the Bible (as far as I can understand it) that I'vetried to write about here. If I'm wrong, may God forgive me, because as I said earlier, I have trodden holy, holy ground in this e-mail.

Hope you have a great week,

In Christ,